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Why America’s Energy Hub Can’t Keep The Lights On

Texas is the capital of U.S. oil and gas production, but a record cold snap has tested the state’s standalone electricity grid model.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Marilu Alanis, 50, rests on a couch while taking shelter at Gallery Furniture store which opened its door and transformed into a warming station after winter weather caused electricity blackouts on February 18, 2021 in Houston.
Marilu Alanis, 50, rests on a couch while taking shelter at Gallery Furniture store which opened its door and transformed into a warming station after winter weather caused electricity blackouts on February 18, 2021 in Houston. Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Mass electricity blackouts rock Texas, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to call Saudi King Salman, and global coronavirus cases begin slow descent.

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The Energy Powerhouse Without Electricity

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Mass electricity blackouts rock Texas, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to call Saudi King Salman, and global coronavirus cases begin slow descent.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

The Energy Powerhouse Without Electricity

One of the more surprising developments of the twenty-first century has been the United States’ rise to become the world’s number one oil and gas producer. Much of that growth has been powered by Texas, the country’s second-largest state—and one that is blessed with abundant natural resource riches.

So when mass blackouts last week left millions without power across the state (and caused an unknown number of deaths), it raised awkward questions about why Texas can be such a large part of the U.S. oil and gas boom, but not have enough to heat its residents’ homes.

To understand why, Foreign Policy turned to Julie Cohn, an energy historian affiliated with both the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute and the University of Houston’s Center for Public History.

Foreign Policy: How would you sum up why Texas, the capital of the U.S. energy industry, ended up without electricity?

Julie Cohn: It’s a multilayer problem: We had this super, super cold week and people cranked up the electricity in their homes to try to heat their homes against freezing and so demand was significantly higher than anybody had ever anticipated or planned for.

The effect the weather had on our systems was that generating facilities of every type—from wind to coal-fired to natural gas, to nuclear—experienced freezing on some parts of their infrastructure that interfered with power production.

In addition, the natural gas network that supplies a lot of those power plants also experienced some freezing that reduced the amount of natural gas available to the state. And on top of that, the natural gas supply was prioritized for residences and certain types of businesses that use it for heating. So that reduced the availability for power generation.

And there was a huge mismatch between power generation and demand and the state’s grid operator had to make decisions to protect the whole system from failing completely—the way they did that was to call for power outages … And that meant that for some of us, we were days without power.

FP: Texas is special as it has its own independent power grid, how did that happen?

JC: The electric power companies in Texas elected to continue operating only within Texas in the middle of the twentieth century, in part because they had been enjoying unregulated operations for decades already. Congress had just passed a law that established federal regulation of interstate power transfers—and this may be an unusual concept outside the United States.

In the United States, commercial activity that takes place within a state is not subject to federal regulation, except for certain types of pollution control. But if businesses are within two different states and they conduct transactions, it becomes interstate commerce and it’s subject to federal regulation.

So, Texas power companies had been merrily rolling along doing their thing … as had power companies all across the country without any federal oversight. Most of the States in the United States had adopted statewide regulation in 1920—Texas didn’t join that party until 1975.

Texas utility companies had a lot of independence. So, when they decided to create a separate entity to manage the power grid in Texas, the utilities made the decision that they were not going to trade electricity with other parts of the country.

So unlike Pennsylvania or New Mexico or California, the majority of Texas power customers get their electricity from generating sources within the state that are transmitted only within the state—and that’s exceptional.

FP: There’s been a lot of discussion over how certain parts of the grid were not equipped to stand up to the cold weather—why weren’t they?

JC: In certain temperature zones, power companies might not elect to winterize their facilities unless they were ordered to do so and could count on compensation for the cost of doing it. Texas has a power market that does not offer strong incentives for companies to do that.

This happened before in 2011. There was a really bad storm and the state experienced rolling blackouts for the better part of a day. There were all sorts of investigations afterwards and recommendations from the federal reliability authorities that Texas require its power facilities to be winterized. And there was a law passed at the state legislature calling for that—but there was no penalty for failing to do it.

And the way our power market is structured is as a competitive wholesale power market. If you don’t think it’s really ever going to get cold enough to be able to charge enough money to cover the cost of winterizing, you might choose not to do it.

FP: As climate change disruptions continue to be felt, is this just something Americans will have to get used to?

JC: Well, I hope the kind of outage we had last week is not the new normal for anybody. In my personal experience, it seems that the weather events of the last couple of decades have been increasingly dramatic and my hope is that the system planners are taking that into account and upping the ante in their planning.

In addition to changing weather patterns and climate change, there are other kinds of technologies that are coming into play. For example, if we have a huge fleet of electric cars on the streets—what happens to transportation during a blackout? Do they become contributors to the grid for home heating and no longer drivable because their storage batteries are being used to turn the lights on?

Or consider all the homes with rooftop solar panels, how do those become more integrated into power systems control? Because they’re really not integrated now.

So, my hope is that the people who think about this from a technical point of view are taking into account all of those things and looking at how to increase the resilience of the grid.

What We’re Following Today

Biden’s Saudi call. U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to speak with Saudi King Salman today as the White House resumes its “counterpart-to-counterpart” engagement, breaking with the Trump administration’s preferred outreach to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The two leaders are expected to discuss a soon-to-be-released unclassified report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence that connects the Saudi crown prince with the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Axios reports that the document could be released as soon as this Thursday.

Bazoum wins in Niger. Niger’s electoral commission has declared ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum as the winner of Sunday’s presidential election runoff. Bazoum defeated his rival, former President Mahamane Ousmane, winning roughly 56 percent of the vote. Ousmane’s campaign has not accepted the results, alleging widespread electoral fraud without providing any evidence.

COVID-19 cases falling (nearly) everywhere. New COVID-19 cases and deaths have dropped worldwide for the sixth consecutive week, according to figures compiled by the World Health Organization. The WHO recorded 2.4 million new cases last week, a drop of 11 percent compared to the previous week. The 66,000 deaths last week represented a 20 percent decline. Five out of the six WHO regions now show a consistent downward trend in new cases, although the trendline in the Eastern Mediterranean region remains flat due to continued case increases in Iran and Iraq.

Keep an Eye On

Greece-Turkey tensions. Turkey has accused Greece of harassing a research vessel in disputed Aegean waters using F-16 fighter jets in the latest sign of tension between the two NATO allies. The Turkish defense ministry alleges that four Greek aircraft approached the Turkish ship, with one dropping a flare nearby. The Greek defense ministry has denied any interference with the ship.

Iran talks. Iran appeared to be edging closer to EU-brokered talks with the United States over a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, the same day it formally limited International Atomic Agency inspections of its nuclear sites. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the country is “looking into the European side’s proposal of an informal meeting for a dialogue.” It follows comments made by EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday where he said he was “reasonably optimistic” that Iran would accept the offer of dialogue.

Odds and Ends

In a landmark ruling, a Beijing divorce court has ordered a man to pay his wife for five years of unpaid housework during their marriage. The award does not amount to much, roughly $1,100 dollars per year, but marks a new era in Chinese divorce law after the government introduced a new civil code. Under the new code, an aggrieved spouse is entitled to seek compensation if they shouldered more domestic responsibilities—with no prenuptial agreement necessary.

The case follows a similar one in Argentina in 2019, when a divorce court ordered a husband to pay his wife of 27 years $179,000 in recognition of her unpaid domestic work.

According to  Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) figures, Chinese women spend roughly four hours per day on unpaid work—with their U.S. counterparts clocking in nearly the same amount. American men are closer to closing the gap than Chinese men, however. American men spending about 2.5 hours per day on unpaid labor, while Chinese men spend just 1.6 hours.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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